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Paying The Ferryman

July 18th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · City Builder, Design

As I work through a continuous game of Dawn of Discovery, I’m finding it a little hard to get into the whole spirit of a master builder. The game is allegedly about making grand cities and trading with exotic outposts. You establish your own resource colonies (with just enough citizens to keep the budget in line) and feed your main town with resources so it can produce all that it needs to become a Renaissance metropolis.

I say “allegedly” because the game is really about ferrying goods from one point on the map to another, about being the Admiral Schlepper of the Open Seas. It is a city builder with less emphasis on building the city than it has on delivering Good X from Island A to Island B.

Keeping the islands varied in climate and resources is a nice design choice. I should really have grabbed a wheat bearing island, but that’s part of the trade off of discovery. Once you know which resources you’ll need in which order, it’s less a matter of exploration than it is grabbing the closest, biggest, most fertile island you can. Then you set up the trade routes and hope that you have enough escorts to drive away hostiles and not too many quests to divert your ships.

I’ll have more to say about how well all of this works in my upcoming full review of the game, but it does make me appreciate how unique a design element this is. German city builders are generally very big on the whole resource chain model, and, in a small way, the Anno series owes a debt to the Settlers series; in those games, walkers would have to carry goods from one node to another, so part of the gameplay was efficient road mapping.

But it’s probably also a reason why these games generally get a mild reception outside Europe. I’ve not been a fan of the Anno games to this point. They have usually been underdocumented, with unclear relationships between resources and structures and so fussy that a death spiral was inevitable. To be fair, even Impressions games could frustrate me to the point of distraction – their Chinese themed one for example.

It is intriguing that some of the most interesting European city builders (Europa: The Guild, Patrician, the Anno series) have been trade centered. American city builders have a more autarchic understanding of the city – it’s the center of the immediate universe and trade is only done to get money to improve that center. There’s a sense of risk in the Euro trading games that you don’t find in many American game design, especially since the economic sim is in as bad shape over here as strategy gaming in general. There is a risk in knowing that your city cannot be self-sufficient and that you need to venture out to find what you need to keep it profitably progressing.

There is a cost in this and not just in ships and time. If, as Tom Chick has said more than once, attention is the real essential resource of RTSes, patience is the price you pay in any trade based city builder. One of the unwritten rules of the genre is that trade cannot be instantaneous like it is in Civ IV. If I could just shift spice from desert island A to northern warehouse B in the early going, then you wouldn’t need ships and there would be no needs for pirates or ports or really anything that makes this late medieval/early modern period come to life. The ships are, in a way, the entire point.

This can get exhausting, especially in a game like Dawn of Discovery where you have to intervene every now and then and seize control of a ship in nature or near a quest objective. As your fleet gets into the tens of vessels and your former friends get bitchy or hostile, the ship management may become more important than the city management.

I am still learning a lot about Dawn of Discovery – still not far enough along where I feel comfortable writing a review. I am liking the game more in the continuous mode, as many of you readers had suggested I would. But I can totally understand why the younger me hated this entire series.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Punning Pundit

    I wish that you were more of a game sociologist rather than a game reviewer. Your line:

    “It is intriguing that some of the most interesting European city builders (Europa: The Guild, Patrician, the Anno series) have been trade centered. American city builders have a more autarchic understanding of the city –”

    It’s pretty big! And deserves a paper all on it’s own…

  • Troy

    Heh. Considering how few reviews I actually write these days, I do spend more time thinking about these questions than about whether or not games are actually good.

  • spelk

    And thats what makes this place so very interesting and unique. Don’t stop Troy!

  • Troy

    No chance of stopping. If only someone would pay me for it or get me a book contract.

  • Punning Pundit

    I bet if you were to write the book, someone would publish it. Call it “The Hidden Economics of Gaming” or something. Books with “Hidden Economics” in the title seem to be selling well…

  • vendolis

    You said:
    “You establish your own resource colonies (with just enough citizens to keep the budget in line)”

    I did not play DoD outside of the demo yet because I still boycott the on-line activation.

    Btu in earlier Anno games you only needed citizens on your main island. The resource islands just where that, a harbor and enough facilities to get the resources out.

  • Troy

    It still works that way to an extent. You don’t need people for the industries to run, though the extra taxes are nice.

    Oriental colonies, though, require nomad residents in order for you to exploit the resources there. So if you want spice or indigo or silk, then you will need to run at least one large and one small city.

  • Sean

    I was thinking of buying this on Steam but the online activation limit crap really turned me off. The whole point of me using Steam is to get away from this type of heavy handed copy protection.

  • Punning Pundit

    There’s a limit to the number of activations!? That’s insane…

  • JonathanStrange

    _Insane?_ Perhaps if it were a great game.

  • Tom H.

    I got the Wii version for my kids, after playing through the PC demo with them, and interestingly enough it doesn’t require shlepping – there’s a single shared stock for all resources. Helps make it much more approachable for them.

    The Wii Dawn of Discovery is a similar game, but not a port of the same game, and looking at the differences between the two is illustrative – I think they did a decent job of pitching the Wii for the control scheme and the expected audience. Exploration is gated by achievements, combat is simplified, the tutorial is even more explicit.